Joe Biden was in Florida over the past weekend. While there, he visited both Little Haiti and Little Havana, communities with distinct political views.
Although the issues at the two events differed, together they paint a picture of how the Biden presidency plans to handle immigration policy.
Looking forward, the potential for program reversals from the Trump era is ample reason for all immigrants living in the U.S. to support the Biden-Harris ticket.
The Florida Immigrant Vote
In the view of most political commentators, Florida is up for grabs in this year’s presidential election. Florida has 29 electoral votes, the nation’s fourth largest contingent.
Since it takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency, as a potential swing state which could tilt either Democratic or Republican, Florida’s 29 electoral votes makes the state critically important for the Biden campaign.
Many pundits suggest the margin of victory in Florida could be the immigrant vote.
For good reason.
Immigrants In Florida
Florida has long been home to a large number of immigrants, many of them from the Caribbean.
According to the American Immigration Council:
- 4.5 million Florida residents, comprising 21% of the state population, were born in another country.
- Of this amount, 2.3 million are women, 2 million are men, and 300,000 are children.
- 2.5 million (57%) have already become naturalized citizens, and over 750,000 are eligible to naturalize.
- Another 2.7 million residents, equalling 13% of the state population, are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent.
- The top five countries of origin for Florida immigrants are Cuba (23%), Haiti (8%), Colombia (6%), Mexico (6%), and Jamaica (5%).
In addition, immigrants are a vital part of the Florida labor force. Nearly one in four workers is an immigrant,
Maximizing The Caribbean Vote
According to the Florida Immigrant Coalition, the state’s diverse immigrant makeup poses unique political concerns.
Some Florida immigrant communities lean liberal, while others lean conservative.
To address such differences, Biden held back-to-back campaign rallies in Little Haiti and Little Havana.
Whereas the goal in Little Haiti was to increase the voter differential between his and Trump’s campaign, the goal in the latter was to minimize the gap.
At Little Haiti, the obvious targets of Biden’s appearance were registered voters of West Indian ancestry – a Caribbean category excluding Hispanic nationalities such as Cuban. According to Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, there are an estimated 115,000 Haitian voters living in Florida. A conservative estimate of Jamaican voters is about 91,000, a figure that likely undercounts their true numbers.
Their support for Biden is buttressed by the selection of Senator Kamala Harris, whose father was born in Jamaica, as his running mate. Because their turnout was 12% higher than the average Florida turnout in the last presidential election, the Biden campaign is hoping the Harris factor inspires an even greater rate of Jamaican participation in the upcoming election – especially from those who have waited many years to reunite with relatives stuck in the homeland due to our archaic visa system.
Towards that end, Biden touched on three topics of great concern to Florida Carribean immigrants: TPS, DACA, and Legalization.
Specifically, he discussed reviving Temporary Protected Status protections, reinstating the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program, and creating new paths to residency and citizenship. His comments provided insight into the types of immigration changes a Biden victory may bring to immigrants nationwide.
Given his limited blueprint, here are my thoughts about the future of the three topics he covered, should the Biden candidacy prevail.
Revive And Expand TPS
Having served as Vice President in 2010, Biden recalled the catastrophic earthquake that demolished Haiti at that time, leading to the granting of TPS for Haitians displaced by the earthquake.
He stressed the time is not ripe to end the Temporary Protected Status program.
The country continues to lack the necessary infrastructure, employment and educational opportunities, and basic services to absorb the 58,000 Haitians living in the U.S. under the protection of the TPS program.
Nonetheless, the Trump Administration has targeted Haiti TPS for immediate closure. Only ongoing court battles in New York and California have saved the program from termination.
Such short-sighted behavior is not surprising given the president’s xenophobic tendencies. In January 2018, at a White House meeting with a bipartisan group of senators, he referred to Haiti and African nations as shithole countries that are undeserving of immigrant-friendly policies.
But Trump’s efforts to terminate Temporary Protected Status benefits is not limited to Haitians.
The entire TPS program is under premature life support. A change from the Trump Administration, driven by its’ hard core anti-immigrant and racist views, to a kinder Biden presidency will hopefully lead to a more humanitarian-oriented prognosis for TPS recipients from El Salvador, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Sudan as well as Haiti.
In my view, fixing TPS requires a three-step approach.
First, a true overhaul of the Temporary Protected Status program requires all programs placed on the cutting board during the Trump years undergo thorough consideration for reinstatement.
Second, petitions for TPS protection summarily dismissed by the Trump Administation should be allowed a new review based on objective TPS guidlines. At minimum, such reexamination should encompass the petitions for Venezuela TPS, Lebanon TPS, and Guatemala TPS.
Third, a road to permanent resident status should be delineated for TPS grantees.
Currently, for TPS beneficiaries living in 13 states, those within the ambit of the Ninth Circuit and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the grant of TPS constitutes a lawful admission.
This allows them to seek adjustment of status under INA 245(a) to permanent residence at local USCIS offices. These TPS grantees are not compelled to travel abroad to seek lawful status, via consular processing, an action which would force them to overcome the onerous requirements of winning an I-601 waiver.
Under the Trump Administration, immigration officials have opposed the extension of these rulings beyond the jurisdictions of the Sixth and Ninth Circuits.
It’s my hope a Biden presidency serious about legalization for TPS recipients would not only revamp government policies, but also implement procedures incorporating a similar pathway to permanent residence nationwide.
Reinstate DACA And Pass The DREAM Act
Reinstating DACA is laudable. Passing the DREAM Act is better.
DACA, like TPS, has been under constant attack by the Trump Administration. As a result, ensuring the protection of DACA benefits for immigrant youth is step forward. Still, it is only a temporary safeguard. In the long term, their real solution is the DREAM Act.
A member of the U.S. Senate since 1973, Biden participated in the initial efforts to enact the DREAM Act in 2001.
Since that time, as Biden likely recalls, the DREAM Act has been on the Congressional drawing board several times. Each time, attempts to enact legislation has fallen short.
In 2010, during the early years of the Obama Administration, a golden opportunity was missed. Although the Democratic Party controlled the Senate, they came up five votes short of passing the DREAM Act.
Despite three Republicans crossing party lines to support the bill, five Democrats opposed the legislation.
Soon after this defeat, efforts to pass the DREAM Act were discontinued, leading to the much less desirable DACA program hatched by President Obama.
Under a Biden presidency, immigration advocates should push the new administration to pass the DREAM Act. It’s long overdue.
Having spent several decades in the Senate, working with members of both parties on a variety of political measures, Biden’s willingness and ability to identify DREAM Act allies to support new legislation will be crucial to its success.
Is Biden up to the task?
Legalization For Immigrant Spouses Of United States Citizens
Legalization was the third prong of Biden’s Florida visit.
Speaking in Little Haiti, he stated that if elected, he would propose a path to citizenship. Although his comment was directed to Haitian immigrants, it is unlikely that a path to legalization would be limited to one cultural group.
Biden’s promises to revive TPS and reinstate DACA were made in conjunction with his commitment to “the thousands of Haitians who have long called the United States home.”
To the extent that the primary criteria for immigration reform is long-term residency, the need extends far beyond immigrants living in Florida.
Any move to construct new legalization pathways should center on the plight of U.S. citizen spouses of immigrants, a neglected yet significant constituency in the immigration reform debate.
To be clear, the number of native-born and naturalized spouses married to immigrants is far larger than any of the aforementioned immigration constituencies.
Moreover, the community of citizen spouses married to immigrants overlaps and intersects with the other categories of immigrants.
Take the TPS community. Except for those grantees living in the 13 states comprising the Sixth and Ninth Circuits, hundreds of long-time TPS beneficiaries are currently married to U.S. citizens and raising children born here without a viable path to legalization.
Or the DACA community. Many DACA recipients have also married United States citizens, but similarly remain trapped without passage to permanent residence status unless they can obtain an extreme hardship waiver and travel abroad.
In other words, U.S. citizen spouses of immigrant husbands and wives should be moved from the backburner to the forefront of immigration reform dialogue.
Family unity, after all, has long been the bedrock of immigration law.
While campaigning for president in 2007, Obama promised that he would create such a path, and minimize, if not eliminate, the effects of 3, 10, and lifetime inadmissibility bars to residency for immigrant spouses.
It never happened. Presumably, he asserted that he needed legislative dance partners. Unlike President Trump, for whatever reasons, real or contrived, Obama did not think administrative edicts or executive orders were appropriate for such changes.
For whatever reasons, he could not find these partners. My hope, as noted above, is that Biden will find and persuade such partners.
Minimizing The Cuban Voter Differential
Biden also visited Little Havana. He noted the Trump Administration, focused on reversing former President Obama’s policies toward Cuba, has not improved the lives of Cubans living abroad.
By de-emphasizing the Obama approach towards increased engagement, Biden stressed, Cuba is further away from freedom and democracy than it was four years ago.
He called the administration’s ramped-up efforts to deport individuals back to Cuba, in light of the Cuban government ‘s expanded political prisoners, brutality by the secret police, and Russian influence, “unconscionable”.
Besides the mass deportation of Cuban immigrants, the U.S. government under Trump has:
- Tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba
- Imposed sanctions on cargo ships that deliver Venezuelan oil to the island
- Limited tourist visas for Cubans one three-month visit, down from multiple visits for up to five years
- Reduced personnel and suspended nearly all visa processing at the American Embassy in Havana
- Restricted the amount of money Cuban Americans can send to relatives on the island
- Forced over 10,000 Cubans to remain in tent camps on the Mexican side of the U.S. border awaiting asylum interviews.
Of course, the Cuban American community has been a Republican stronghold over the years. And these types of hard line stances issues remain generally popular with Cuban voters.
For instance, a recent poll showed Cuban support for the embargo (54%) and elimination of cruise ships (55%).
Yet, a surprisingly large number of Cuban Americans (58%) oppose the suspension of issuing visas in Havana and the family reunification program.
In fact, this year a significant number of Cuban votes are up in the air, as many younger Cubans have opted to side with Biden.
Demographic studies show an emerging difference of opinions between Cubans who immigrated to the United States and those who were born here.
A recent poll revealed, among longer-term Cuban residents who immigrated to the U.S. before 1995, Trump leads Biden 71% to 18%. However, among Cubans not born abroad, the margin is only 46% to 37%.
As Laura Munoz, Hotline Manager and former Voter Registration Deputy Director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition explained in a recent episode of Immigration Live, this trend appears to reflect the political evolvement of the Cuban American community.
The Batistianos who fled Cuba during the early years of the Castro regime are aging. Their children and grandchildren do not carry the same degree of personal animosity toward the Cuban Revolution. They are more inclined to support diplomatic ties which enable them to visit with family members still living on the island.
Given the Trump Administration’s Cuban measures, there is a growing dissent with GOP candidates. And even though it remains unlikely Biden will win a majority of their votes in November, the inroads he makes can help pave the road to electoral victory.
Plus, a Biden Plan focused on initiating paths to legalization would offer Cubans, like other immigrant communities, a monumental shift forward that empowers them to enjoy the fruits of family unity for distant relatives.
Immigration Reform Under Biden
One of the primary reasons for Obama’s failure on immigration was that he invested the majority of his political capital on enacting health care legislation.
With Covid-19 looming large, immigration will once again not be the top public issue, again, should Biden win the presidency.
Yet, the combination of disparate Covid-19 death rates in ethnic communities, coupled with the important role of immigrant essential workers, means immigration reform will remain a weighty subject.
One difference from former president Obama is that Biden, should he win, is a one-term president. He does not need to worry about future elections.
In addition, potential candidates from both sides of the political aisle will be angling for leadership on issues that will magnetize future voters.
Some House and Senate representatives will venture into uncharted territory. Others will retreat, prefering to wait until they can figure out the winds of tomorrow.
The Trump base, now defeated, will scream foul about every immigration reform measure proposed. But there will be those in GOP, wanting to remove the stench of the Trump era, who realize a new base of voters must be brought into the Republican camp.
The most astute will acknowledge New Americans – immigrants – must be courted.
This opens the door to possible bipartisan agreement on immigration matters, which, however limited, may well be more substantial than changes implemented during the Obama years.
In short, I believe some positive immigration modifications will take place under a Biden Administration.
It’s not a question of if.
It’s a question of when.
Does this mean I will not disagree with any immigration recommendations during Biden’s time in office?
Nonetheless, I anticipate the reversal of Trump’s more extreme policies will lead to new measures that would not otherwise have seen the light of the day.
That’s a good thing.
Immigration advocates can pick up the slack from there in future battles for political support.
Now, let’s do this.
I’ll see you at the voting poll on November 3rd.